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The fog of anger, self pity and fatigue began to clear from Will's
brain as they made their way through the suburbs. All around them,
great towering buildings reached up beyond sight. Everyone of them
filled with service apartments, ninety to the floor, ten feet by
twelve feet, precisely mirroring Will's.
All the human suburbs were alike. The buildings, the
apartments, full of people in their regulation pastel grey utility
suits. It was the same the world over, from New Delhi to Nova
Scotia. Even the dialects gradually evolving into a new unified linguistic
form. COMS had kept it promise. Humankind had finally achieved
perfect equality and most were happy to embrace their new
lifestyle, complete with a few limitations.
Will was one of those rare exceptions who was not. In a way
it was not his fault. He had been tutored in rebellion by his
mother. A proud woman with a love of the past and of all the cultural
bric-a-brac that went with it. She had told him the stories that
inspired, shown him the banned books and videos, made him
appreciate their beauty. Then one day Dee Prince had vanished,
along with her beloved collection of contraband classics. COMS had
tried to revise his education but the damage had been done. Will
had developed unreal expectations of life. He was the sort of
dangerous anachronism who believed in preposterous unobtainable
things like true love and truer adventures.
Years had passed and his frustration had kept pace with his
body. He knew that his outbursts were increasing to a point where
they would no longer be tolerated. COMS had already graded his
apartment into the same high risk location category as that used
for solar exploration. What would happen went they could take no
Were the rumours about banishment true? Is that where his
mother had gone? Why couldn't he just accept the status quo? It
would be make life so much easier and less painful.
Will was totally immersed in thought and had walked into the
'I wish you wouldn't do this,' Sulphur pleaded.
Will gently rubbed his throbbing forehead and pressed the
'You've got to try things. Someday the transport will give
in. The rules will be bent. That'll be a small victory. It's the hope
of those victories that keeps me alive.'
Sulphur stared fixedly at the pink badge on Will's chest.
'You didn't seem to find your victory with the clothes
console particularly life enhancing.'
'Here it comes,' Will used a distant lofty tone.
Sulphur smiled. Will always got huffy when stumped for a
The transport swooped recklessly out of the sky and came to
a dead stop, floating just above the ground. The aged passengers
wore their usual transportation faces. Fixed grimaces of mingled
panic and terror. Personifications were not noted for being
soothing drivers. Their polished, split-second reactions to
looming obstacles made every trip seem like your last. The doors
'Mind the gap, mind the gap.'
To discourage the countless arguments between surly drivers
and rude passengers that always seemed a fixed feature of the old
way of life, some bright spark at COMS had come up with the idea
of making the driver look intimidating. Will found himself inches
from a very large and vicious looking gorilla.
Will mentally reassured himself that this monstrous beast was
programmed not to harm him.
The gorilla's dark frown solidified. In a voice so deep that
it was almost cosmic, it spoke.
'It is against the regulations of the COMS health council to
transport an able-bodied person under the age of sixty-five for
distances of less than five miles. Human welfare centre number
43332 is a distance of only 3.725 miles away. Therefore, I must
advise you, that walking is the healthy exercise choice.'
'Yes, I know all that.' Will said, showing a stupid amount
of bravado in trying to continue the conversation. `But, what
about my mental health? That's what I want to know. Have you been
to Dickensland lately? If I have to step over one more cheerfully
starving Victorian urchin I'll have a breakdown. If you took me to
the centre, it would almost amount to a humanitarian gesture.
The care with which the Gorilla gripped Will's throat and
gently placed him back upon the pavement definitely amounted to a
humanitarian gesture. Sulphur exchanged a momentary glance full of
apology and regret with the driver, the sort of look that was
reserved the universe over for beings trying to distance
themselves from embarrassing acquaintances.
The gorilla replied with a coded expression full of martyred
resignation. A look all Personifications recognised as the
exasperated sign language for "Why do we put up with these
The door closed. The transport rocketed upward, pirouetting
away at a speed that caused Sulphur to idly wonder if the gorilla
was venting his annoyance on the petrified passengers.
Will remained strangely silent, perhaps because he remained
for some time a not very fetching shade of purple. After they had
walked for a while he did manage a contrite croak.
'They say walking is the healthy exercise choice you know.'
Sulphur privately concluded that as he did not need to get
healthy, walking 3.725 miles on his stumpy legs was, to say the
least, inconvenient. Still, someone had to keep a lens on Will.
The great fool was not to be trusted on his own.
The towering modern structures soon gave way to festering
Nineteenth Century slums. There were no real boundaries to this
world of villains and cutpurses, Newgate and the Fleet; to
It had been named with typical COMS inventiveness, a
preposterous relic of early leisure society planning. Constructed
over a century before to provide instructive recreations of
authors' work. Most of the existing landscape had been demolished
to make way for huge bibliographical inspired theme parks;
Shakespeare-land, Bronte-land, Hardy-land, Prince-land, Burns-
land, Thomas-land, and a myriad of others. The entire island that
once contained England, Scotland and Wales was bisected and over
run by these Educational Prototype Inter-active Community Systems.
Transformed to function as a tourist Mecca for the Northern
Unfortunately, soon after construction was completed, COMS
decided that travel was not only unnecessary but downright
They reasoned that there was no point in humans taking
potentially risky journeys when they could get a perfectly
adequate, and only slightly censored, view of the world from the
comfort of their own apartments. The literary E.P.I.C.S remained,
left solely for the use of the odd local and even odder camera
As a resident of 9 780713 628111 (Old London), as the
numerically obsessed machines called it, Will had the pleasure of
being pestered by a rich variety of consumer-starved Dickensian
life on his way to collect his Distribution of Leisure Entitlement
This meant that in a short space of time, he had turned down an
offer of shares in the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and
Crumpet and Punctual Delivery Company. Had agreed with a roughish-
eyed, dwafen lady of about 45 that "It was a world of gammon and
spinach", and had been confusingly informed by a young ink-stained
gentlemen that the surrounding excellent weather was "a London
particular, a fog."
By the time Sam Weller introduced himself, Will was starting
to get really cheesed off.
'Vell I never, Will Prince, wery glad to see you, indeed,
and hope our acquaintance may be a long `un, as the gen`l'man said
to the fi' pun' note.'
'Wich is your partickler Wanity? Wich Wanity do you like the
flavour on best, sir?' Sam boldly inquired as Will tried to make a
'Anythin' for a quiet life, as the man said when he took the
sitivation at the lighthouse.'
With customary good sense, Sam vacated his position to Uriah
Heep. Heep, his long hands slowly twisting over one another, made
a ghastly writhe from the waist upwards and was just able to
inform everyone in the vicinity of his extreme `umbleness when
Will tripped him and broke free of a growing crowd of fictional
Deprived of a customer they watched the fleeing figures of
man and dragon with varying degrees of disgruntlement.
'I'm gormed and I can't say fairer than that,' Mr Peggoty
The red-faced legal figure of Mr Sergeant Buzfuz firmly
asserted that Will was 'a being erect on two legs, and bearing all
the outward semblance of a man, not a monster.' Mrs Gamps opinion
was that 'he'd make a lovely corpse', whilst Simon Tappertit
paused as if in triumph and wiped his heated face upon his sleeve
before stating that, 'Something will come of this. I hope it
mayn't be human gore.'
Uriah Heep however, was unctuously eloquent about the joy of
being tripped by a man of Master Prince's standing and looked
forward to repeating the experience on his return journey.
Having arrived in the neighbourhood and decided against
rearranging the planets into a neater grouping. The Purple Thingy
scanned our Solar System with growing dismay.
There was a flicker or two of promise on the forth planet
but no creatures here were really top-grade, bite-yer-gurglies-
off, galaxy-trashing champion material. Take those absurd beings
on the blue-green world for instance. It was a marvel that they
had managed to survive for the fleeting time they had, ridiculous
they actually thought they were important, that individually they
mattered. What was even more gob-smackedly amazing was that they
had convinced their machines that this was the case.
It was no good. These insignificant creatures would never be
able to rescue the MADID. It would have to come up with an
alternative plan. If all life in this system was to suddenly,
inexplicably cease, no one could really call it cheating. With no
life, there could be no potential champion, and with no champion,
The Thingy was just revving up to a total genocide setting
when, with perfect jammy blind luck timing, one of Its eyeball
control brains picked up a trace memory of the deflected laser
beam's message and broadcast the name "Heroics INC." into several
dozen of the Thingy's rancid eyeballs. The Thingy paused to
process this information, deciding to follow the laser trail and
investigate further. Like many over beings in the universe, It had
learned to never underestimate the power of good advertising.
Will and Sulphur, both thanking a benign fate for keeping
them out of the clutches of that saccharin infant Tiny Tim,
tempered their relief with the knowledge that they would shortly
have to make a return journey.
Will did not hate the place as much as he pretended. At
least the trip through Dickensland allowed him the chance to see
the odd tree and blade of grass, and there was always the
possibility that some of the more fantastical inhabitants might
appear. He harboured quite a fondness for the mean-spirited
Gabriel Grub and his tormenting Goblins, although the many
radiantly jolly rehabilitated versions of the sour sextant were
tiresome in the extreme.
Sulphur, on the other hand, could find nothing to brighten
the prospect of the return visit. The place, full of ancient
Personfications, always disturbed him. The old tourist units were
really no better than advanced automatons, capable of only the
most basic reasoning and no one liked to be faced with the
realisation that one's grandparents were retards.
Then there was the Will factor. Whenever Sulphur tried to
instil in his charge a basic grasp of the concept of historical
accuracy as in the case of the Crimson Pirate and other anomalies
too numerous to mention, he was always countered with the same
response: "Explain Dickensland then Clever-clogs." It did no good
to explain that there was a difference between the history of the
page and of the past. Will just responded that his anomalies were
`products of the page' and that was how he liked them.
What Sulphur would never admit, even to himself, was that he
liked to lose arguments even less then the Human. There was
something deeply discomforting about losing to someone with a
fraction of your brainpower. Which probably explained the non-
appearance of baboons in major galactic chess championships.
They entered Human Welfare Centre No 43332. It was still
quite early and the crowds had not begun to drift in for their
lunch-time mingling session. Several others hung around the GRUB
Machines with vapid smiles and untroubled, pastel grey utility
minds. Will moved rapidly towards the distribution of leisure
Quickly in and out, that was the answer, or you run the risk
of some grinning idiot grabbing you to explain, with sadistic
precision, how exciting their life was.
While Sulphur hastened to the Personification lounge to
catch up on the latest gossip from various beaked and clawed
artificial companions, Will took a seat in a payment booth. To
his surprise, the payment was not immediately issued on completion
of scanning. Instead his official `COMSgratulations' birthday card
contained an instruction to go to cubicle four.
The Purple Thingy had traced the origin of the laser blast
to Will's apartment. Time was getting short and this human
creature would have to do.
It was obvious that the Thingy would have to change Its
appearance; a culture that could not conceive of life without soft
toilet paper could not begin to comprehend a major multi-
dimensional super-personality like the Thingy. In a fraction of a
second It had scanned Mankind's pitiful excuse for a history and
reached a decision. With such a narrow range of genre expectations
to choose from, the transformation into Sharon, Queen of the
Illuminated Way, took but an instant.
Will's Social Worker was one of the upbeat sort. You could tell
that from the "smiley-face" on his baseball cap and the inane
smirk that went with it.
'Hi Will! How's the birthday?'
'Well, I found out that I've only got six months to live...'
'It seems that my head is slowly turning into a Bonsai
'That's why I blew up my building today.'
'That's terrific news! But, enough chit chat, Will - though
its so enjoyable to have this chance to inter-relate with a guy
The Social Worker tried to look meaningful and sombre but
was unable to cancel out that grin, which made him look like an
'This is serious buddy. COMS is worried about you. They
Will's reaction to this bland statement was suddenly one of
absolute blind terror. No matter how much you mentally prepare
yourself, the speedy onrush of disaster comes as a terrific shock.
He grimly realised that IT might be coming.
There was a modern legend; one that was used to get
youngsters to do as they were told, one that remained with you
until adulthood. Such was its power and its ability to scare. It
was about the "caring COMS speech" or "the BARF address" as it was
more commonly known. No one that he knew had heard it, but
everyone was roughly aware of what it contained. It was a prelude
to the ultimate punishment that COMS could bestow: Exile.
He had known that he had been getting on the Authorities'
nerves and had been thinking of the possibility of this meeting
with increasing frequency. Yet he had never thought that the
threat was serious - it was just a contemporary myth. As a grown-
up he could not really believe, in his heart of hearts, that they
has exiled his mother, no more than he believed in BARF. It had
just been an excuse so that he could blame COMS for all his
BARF; the very name was nonsensical, unreal. The letters
stood for the salient points of the speech: BALANCED.
The Social Worker had finished his gushing preliminaries and
now plunged into the main body of his text.
'What they want to know is, are you sure that you're really
balanced and happy as an individual and part of the team? This is
not meant as a criticism you understand.'
Balanced, the word had struck Will like a blow. Maybe as the
saying went, there was such a thing as `BARF before banishment',
If so ADJUSTMENT would be next.
'COMS is there for you: At all times. We all try to make
your life as simple and yet as richly textured as possible. All we
ask is that you help us by making a very small adjustment in your
Not that we think for a moment, for the tiniest microsecond,
that there's anything fundamentally wrong with that behaviour...'
"Huh. Do they think I'm that big a fool?" Will thought and
then remembered the evidence in their favour. He tried to look
composed and attentive. But however cool the outer appearance,
inside he was sweating oceans. Adjustment was in place and a
sentence of death could not sound any more final or scary, the
next word would be: RELATING.
'It's not that we're keeping score. No one is. It's just
that, well, we can't help noticing that you seem to have a little
trouble with relating. Not just with us. With your own kind, You
have to give them a chance, they're a great bunch of fabulously
interesting people, and we're not exactly dull,' he suavely
'Now we're not saying that you have a problem,'
"BANISHMENT isn't a problem?!!"
Will's mental processes, partly numbed by nausea were
getting desperate, frantically preparing a rebuttal address that
went as follows: "Help! How do I get out of this? I can be good.
I can learn, you'll see. I can be as dull as anyone, just give me
another try. I can fit in. You'll see. I'll never moan again,
at anyone, at anything, Not even the GRUB machine. Just don't,
please, please, don't ... mention FULFILMENT."
'It's only that, by acting this way, by being ever so
slightly - I have to say it - antisocial, you're denying yourself
such an amount of riches. We feel that your life is currently
lacking a vital sense of wonder, of real fulfilment ... That is
'Here it comes,' Will screwed up his face and his courage.
It was one thing to think distantly about banishment, but
quite another to confront it.
The Social Worker leaned forward. If it had not been for
the distraction caused by the baseball cap, the boyish face would
have seemed almost saintly in its concern.
'We decided to have this little talk. As I've already said
COMS cares. If you have any problems feel free to come and see me
Will felt sure that there was more coming.
'Is this a trick?'
The Social Worker was confused.
'It's all waiting for me outside, isn't it? This is just to
lull me into a false sense of security.'
'What's waiting? I don't understand, feller.'
'The restraints, the spaceship. Banishment to deep space?'
The Social Worker was so outraged, he almost lost his grin.
'Banishment? We don't banish anyone. We've never banished
anyone. It would be barbaric to let you loose on space. You
Humans made a big enough shambles of life on your own planet,
without allowing you to spread anywhere else. Mankind in space!
I've never heard of anything so silly. If there's any galactic
exploring to be done Will, COMS will do it.'
'What about my mother then?' Will spat out in an accusing
voice. The Social Worker paused, eyes glazed, as it accessed the
relevant information for a response.
'Your mother was like you; she got immersed in that
Twentieth Century rubbish and became unhappy because of it. She
was not content with just having good things provided by us.
That's why she had the breakdown.'
'Yes. She started to believe that COMS had punished all the
great or difficult minds of Earth by exiling them to Mars.
Though, having seen all those old films and books, I'm surprised
she thought there were any. She stole away an a mining transport.'
'You LET her go?'
'In those days we let people go to Mars. They couldn't do
much harm, or go anywhere else. There may even be a handful left
'So there's no banishment.'
'No, No banishment, I think you got that from your mother.
Must be some kind of strange hereditary delusion. It would
explain a lot if you were mad.'
'Never mind that. You're saying that, if I don't feel like
talking, I can go?'
'Yes. I'm just here when you need me.'
Will's mind and feelings were a turbulent mess. If what the
Social Worker said were true, and he could see no reason why it
would lie, the foundation on which Will had built his loathing of
the leisure culture was about as stable as a trapeze act in a
typhoon. There was hope after all. It was clear. He realised
that if he could put aside his own inherent inadequacies and
paranoia, there was a chance to make a life in this mechanistic
society. He could see a whole new set of options illuminated by a
peaceful inner light.
'Okay, I'll go...' Will paused, waiting apologetically.
'Is there anything else?.'
'Well, yes. My birthday payment. The card was empty.'
'I'm sorry Will - there is no payment. It seems you
incurred quite a few fines this morning.'
'You mean, I've been through everything this morning for
'Not for nothing Will. Any experience can be educational.'
For a moment, the old frustration flared up inside, Will
coldly imagined ripping the Social Worker's head off, filling it
with explosive and giving DOLE office No 43332 a birthday payment
it would never forget.
He had been under considerable pressure all day and given
the circumstances, his self-control was almost admirable.
"I can live without the payment," he reasoned. "My temper
was partly to blame. The Social Workers right, I've never given
COMS a chance. All I have to do is trust in them."
With his equilibrium restored, Will smiled his sweetest
'About the payment; No problem.'
'That's fine.' The Social Worker rose and held out his hand,
'I believe it was customary to SHAKE in those old films of
It was all so very fast. As Will reached over to respond,
the Social Worker expertly drove the hypo into his arm. Will had
collapsed back into his chair and was being swallowed by one of
those inky black pools that over-populate detective fiction before
he realised that anything was wrong.
As his befuddled brain struggled to make sense of what was
happening, he became aware of the Social Worker leaning over him
with touching concern. He concentrated all his remaining effort
on understanding what was said next. He knew that it would be
very important. The Social Worker's sad tone was more sinned
against than sinning.
'You see, Will, we don't banish people. It's too
impractical, and anyway, it's our job to protect you, that's why
we intend to mentally re-educate you. That's what we really do
with all the difficult ones,' his voice became Jaunty.
'Hell, feller! Just think of it as a retraining
That was all that Will remembered.
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